The Peenemünde Raid 17-18 August 1943

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Bomb damage to the Experimental Works, before and after reconnaissance photographs

Part Six – On the Ground at Peenemünde, the Effectiveness of the Bombing and the Legacy

The German rocket engineers had arrived at Peenemünde in 1936. Their remit was to circumvent the severe limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and produce a credible weapons delivery system and the German Wehrmacht took over a programme that had once been the domain of amateur rocket enthusiasts. Considerable manpower and resources were channelled into a military rocketry, which had begun in the heavily wooded area south of Berlin. The programme soon outgrew the site and a larger area where considerable infrastructure could be built was required.

Peenemünde was a quiet fishing village on the right bank of the River Peene, where it flows into the Baltic. The advantages of the site were its remoteness and the 300 mile stretch of German sea to the north, which would make a perfect rocket range. The area had a natural beauty, marshes, dunes, ancient oaks and pine trees, a splendid and healthy part of Germany for the scientists and their families. There was an old Strength Through Joy holiday camp that could be used an temporary accommodation, while the main buildings were constructed. The nearest branch railway line was seven miles away, so the Germans laid new tracks into the security area and complex. The buildings were built among the trees and as little felling as possible was carried out, so that the constructions nestled in their own natural camouflage. The harbour was expanded and deepened and the many of the local population were moved out for security reasons. During the last few months of peace, Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt finished the heavy engineering plants and the defences.

Wernher von Braun was involved with the German rocketry programme right from the beginning as a nineteen year old student. Unsurprisingly, because of his pivotal role in the American space programme, history has been rather kind to Wernher von Braun. Attempts have been made to portray the rocket scientists, particularly von Braun, as men whose main aim was peaceful research with their eyes on the moon. Their work on military rockets was purely temporary, a necessary aberration before they could concentrate of their real goal, the exploration of space. The complex at Peenemünde may have indeed been an exciting and vibrant place to work, but none of the engineers and scientists could be under any doubt, that they were researching and constructing rockets with a warhead, conventional or otherwise, that were to be aimed at civilian populations. Their masters were the Wehrmacht and from 1944 it would be the SS. In 1940 von Braun joined the SS and was given the rank of Untersturmführer in the Allgemeine SS and issued membership number 185,068. Photographs of him in his SS uniform are very difficult to find.

Another project on the site was the development of the V1 flying bomb programme by the Luftwaffe. The German air force was a late arriver to the area, beginning their separate programme in 1942. By the summer of 1943, the gyro faults had been ironed out and it was planned to begin the construction of V1s at the rate of 1,000 per month, rising to 5,000 by the middle of 1944. Ironically and rather worryingly, Duncan Sandys and the Joint Chiefs’ Committee knew nothing of the V1 programme.

The First Wave – Numbers Three and Four Groups

The Germans may have expected a raid on Peenemünde, but for whatever reasons, they were not prepared for it. Perhaps the remoteness of the location and the security surrounding it may have lulled them into a false sense of security. But when the bombers came, the scientists and their families were about to find out what their fellow countrymen in the cities had suffered. The numerous photographic reconnaissance missions across the area may have given some indication of what was to happen, but the physical defences were woefully inadequate. There was little in the way of medical or fire and rescue teams or any meaningful organisation.

Unlike cities such as Hamburg and Berlin, most of the buildings on the site were constructed of wood or light brickwork. Some of the basements in the housing estate had been turned into shelters, but for the majority of the workers in their wooden barracks, their protection was zig-zag trenches in the sandy soil. Some more senior men sent their families away as an example to their subordinates, but most of the women and children were still on the site when the bombers came.

On the 17th August 1943 at 23:25 local time, the sirens went off at Peenemünde, caused by the Mosquito spoof raid to Berlin. Most ignored the warning, given the proximity of the German capital, but significantly, there was no all-clear given. By 01:00 most were tucked up in bed, but the peaceful silence of the night was disturbed by the increasing roar of engines coming from the north. Some of the foreign slave workers hoped that it was a raid by the RAF, but very few had been on the receiving end of Bomber Command’s main force. When the first target markers cascaded down like brilliant Christmas trees, the Germans were terrified, because they had seen the results in Hamburg and the Ruhr.

The problems with the first of the Pathfinders’ markers had seen target indicators going down on the Trassenheid Polish labour camp. These workers had been used to dig trenches for the Germans in Peenemunde, but none had been dug in their camp. The long barrack huts were of wooden construction and the workers were locked in for the night. The power went off as soon as the sirens sounded and then the camp was bathed in a brilliant red light as the red spot fires marker flares came down over the huts. The German guards panicked, some opening the huts, others opening fire on the prisoners who were yelling to be released from the wooden buildings. But even those who made it out of the huts were trapped within the wire as the Germans didn’t open the gates.

The 1,000lb general purpose bombs and 4,000lb Cookie blast bombs hit the ground first, the lighter incendiaries falling like burning confetti on the wrecked buildings. The Cookies and larger 8,000lb Blockbusters carried by the Lancaster BIIs were designed to demolish a city block, blowing in the windows and off the roofs, enabling the four and thirty pound incendiaries to burn the buildings from the inside. They made short work of the wooden huts.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map of Peenemünde showing main target areas

It is the blast wind resulting from the blast overpressure that leads to injuries and fatalities. The human body may be thrown violently into objects and receive blunt force trauma; conversely, large objects may be thrown into persons resulting in crush injuries, or else projectiles launched by the blast wind may penetrate the body. The susceptibility of personnel to blast effects depends on their proximity to nearby objects and possible projectiles. Personnel standing in the open and away from projectiles may survive higher blast overpressure than those standing near a solid wall or object. The Trassenheid labour camp was a death trap and continued to receive bombs throughout the raid, due to mismarking and the burning wooden huts. However the first wave’s Backer-ups had noticed the inaccurate target markers were too far to the south and correctly marked the housing estate. Now the Germans would suffer the same fate as their slave workers.

The housing estate had been built in the pre-war period as a model village and was the home of 3,000 people. The buildings were beautifully constructed in the woods and most were single-storey of wooden construction, with tar covered roofs. The blast bombs shredded the buildings and the incendiaries set fire to the tar roofs and the pine trees, which burned like incandescent torches. Some remained safe in their basement shelters, but the many who survived the blast waves were overwhelmed by burning tar and the sap from exploding trees. Many others sought refuge in the sea, escaping the burning buildings and woods, watching shivering in the waters as Peenemünde burned.

The sandy sides of the trench shelters often collapsed, burying those sheltering from the bombs, whilst those without overhead cover were suffocated by the blast waves and the burning buildings consuming oxygen. Generally those that survived managed to make it to the sea or open countryside and the vast majority of the casualties were killed in the housing estate and Trassenheid labour camp. The targets for the second and third wave of bombers would be largely empty of personnel, but these targets were the most important of the raid.

The Second and Third Waves – Number One, Five and Six Groups

The second intended target was the large V2 production and assembly plant, which consisted of two large buildings. One had been completed and the second was nearing completion. The second building was store for about twenty completed V2s and a small staff were in the buildings on duty. Over a hundred Lancasters carrying 537 tons of bombs were tasked with the production and assembly plant’s destruction.

Post raid reconnaissance photographs indicate that only two direct hits had been made on these two buildings, but they were of solid construction and there was considerable unseen damage inside the structures. Other smaller bombs had penetrated the roofs which remained intact and exploded inside, destroying the stored rockets and killing and injuring the duty staff. The main weight of this phase of the attack had fallen too far to the south and drifted out to sea. However ancillary buildings were destroyed, which contained valuable construction blueprints.

The final target was the experimental works, an area 1,500 yards by 500 yards. The more than seventy buildings housed the administrate blocks, the technical facilities and it was where the most important of the rocket scientists lived. Unfortunately for the bomber crews this was the area most effectively covered by the smoke screen and the lapse in time before the third wave arrived, allowed everybody to take cover. The accuracy of the bombing of this small area, was compounded by the arrival of the German night fighter force. These factors led to an error of 400 yards, nothing in a city but a mile as far as so small a pinpoint target was concerned.

At least twenty-five buildings were destroyed, which included the headquarters and senior officers’ mess. The power plant was also hit and its supply of coal burned for three days, but the destroyed buildings contained not one, single item of scientific importance to the German rocket programme and unfortunately, Wernher von Braun was still alive. On the western side of the peninsula, the liquid oxygen plant was unscathed as was the airfield and the wind tunnel testing rig.

As the last of the bombers disappeared, the shocked inhabitants emerged from their shelters and the German started to take stock and regroup. The Germans were galvanised into well organised teams and work parties painted fake battle damage on the intact buildings and cleared vegetation to simulate bomb craters, even before the reconnaissance Mosquito arrived. Apart from the appalling loss to the labourers at Trassenheid and the almost total destruction of the housing estate, the Germans could quite rightly feel that their rocket programme had a lucky escape.

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The remains of experimental establishment

Of the 1,400 people in the housing estate, around 178 were killed. Accurate figures are hard to find for the foreign workers killed, but it would have been far more than the numbers of Germans killed. The Nazis had been presented with a propaganda coup and made a great deal out of it, claiming they had found a map in a crashed bomber, that showed a fourth target that was the labour camp. No map of that nature ever existed. The bombing of civilians in the housing was cited by the Germans as a war crime, but scientists engaged in work on a strategic weapon were a legitimate target by any interpretation of the Haig and Geneva Conventions. That the scientists chose to live with their families, whilst undertaking such work is purely a matter for their consciences.

The RAF lost 299 aircrew that night, UK 176, Canada sixty, Australia ten, New Zealand three, USA two and Rhodesia, Trinidad and Southern Ireland, one from each. Forty-five men became prisoners of war. That so few aircrew survived was due to the large numbers of bombers shot down over the sea, and that most of them were Lancasters, an extremely difficult aircraft exit in extremis. The forward escape hatch under the nose was too small to exit cleanly, and an escaping airman would have to sit on the edge, his legs in the slipstream and wriggle out, encumbered by his parachute in an often burning and spinning aircraft.

Ergonomically, the Halifax had a much better designed interior for its crew. The wireless operator was situated under the pilot with the navigator and bomb aimer’s position in the nose. Five of the crew were in touching distance and despite its narrow fuselage, the escape hatch in the nose was a good size. In the Lancaster, the wireless operator and navigator were some eight to ten feet away from the escape hatch, and had to get down into the bomb aimer’s compartment in the nose.

The results of the bombing were disappointing, due to scattered marking caused by the smoke screens, the high crosswinds and the misplaced spot markers of the first wave. AVM Cochrane’s 5 Group showed the best bombing results, where crews trusted their time and distance calculations and bombed with dead reckoning, rather than trusting the Pathfinders’ marking. Cochrane was extremely unhappy at the compromise that Harris had forced on his Group and continued to maintain that a 5 Group only operation would have achieved better results. It’s also a mystery to me as to why there wasn’t a follow-up raid by Mosquitos the next morning to disrupt and demoralise rescue and recuperation teams, when the German fighter crews would have been scattered and resting. But the main reason the German casualties were so low, was because of nature of the ground at Peenemünde. The soft, sandy soil allowed the bombs to penetrate to depth before exploding and this absorbed much of the effects of blast.

The Legacy

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Survivors from the Nordhausen Concentration Camp for V2 production. Note that there are even more graphic and horrifying images from Nordhausen, but not for a Sunday evening

It’s impossible to say with any accuracy, for just how long the Peenemünde raid delayed the Germans’ V2 programme. The overseers of the project in Berlin moved quickly after the raid, following a meeting between Hitler, Speer and Himmler. Peenemünde was not to be rebuilt, the establishment left with a ruined appearance. A large part of the site’s activities were moved. Test firing was conducted in Poland, experimental works to caves in Austria and construction and assembly to an underground complex in the Harz Mountains, the hellhole of the Nordhausen/Dora concentration camp.

Both sides estimate that the raid delayed production for some two to three months, the first rocket being fired operationally on 8th September 1944. Crucially this was over two months after D-Day and its build-up in the Channel ports. In the final analysis, the Germans fired 370 rockets a month. Therefore RAF Bomber Command prevented the launch of 740 rockets, many, which would have fallen on London. Perhaps more importantly, the raid was a severe dent to German morale. It demonstrated that the RAF could hit any target in Germany, no matter how safe and secure its inhabitants felt and it proved that an extremely blunt object could and was used like a dagger thrust into the heart of a country’s strategic gravity.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Wernher von Braun went on to carve his niche in history and is rightly remembered for his pivotal role in putting men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth. However, after reading accounts from Nordhausen/Dora concentration camp, it is my personal and I stress personal view that von Braun was lucky not to have ended his life, twisting and dangling on the end of a rope. And I’m sure that there are many who would have the same view on Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris. But not me. My father was one of Harris’s “Old Lags.”

History is written by the victors and also by the side that can plunder more of a defeated enemy’s scientific manpower and resources than its allies.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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